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Buried Screenwriter on Path to Success

Chris Sparling at COM’s Cinematheque tonight


Screenwriter Chris Sparling speaks at BU tonight.

The premise for the film Buried would have challenged even the most veteran Hollywood screenwriter: a man is buried alive in a coffin with only a cell phone and a lighter to stave off death. All the action takes place in an enclosed box. But for screenwriter Chris Sparling, the movie proved to be a big break into Hollywood.

The former College of Communication lecturer never imagined that what began as an idea for a small independent film would ultimately land a bona fide star in actor Ryan Reynolds. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last winter, and was released in theaters this past fall to the kind of notices writers dream of. In a Chicago Sun Times review, Roger Ebert writes: “Although the entire movie takes place in the enclosed space, director Rodrigo Cortes and writer Chris Sparling are ingenious in creating more plausible action than you would expect possible.” And, notes the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, the film is “an experiment in limitation that…manages to tap into our deepest anxieties.”

The suspense thriller, just released on DVD and Blu-ray, took in $18.4 million at the box office and netted Sparling a best original screenplay award from the National Board of Review last year.

In Buried, Paul, an American truck driver played by Reynolds, is working as a contractor in Iraq. He is attacked and wakes to find himself buried in a coffin. When his kidnappers demand a $5 million ransom, he must make a series of frantic phone calls to his family and employer in an effort to save his life.

“You have a movie about guy in a coffin, so people automatically assume it’s a horror film,” says Sparling, who taught screenwriting at COM in 2009. But he considers the film to be more of a psychological, “Hitchcock-ian” thriller.

The 33-year-old screenwriter has several projects in the works, including another soon-to-be released thriller, ATM, and a screenplay for Oscar-nominated director M. Night Shyamalan. He is speaking at COM tonight as part of the BU Cinematheque series, a COM program that brings filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

BU Today spoke to Sparling about Buried, his career track, and his advice for aspiring screenwriters.

BU Today: How did you come up with the idea for Buried?
The way the idea came to me is that I wanted to write a film that I could direct, a feature. I needed something I could afford to make. I wanted to do something that truly felt cinematic. So I asked myself, what’s a setup that could support the very, very small budget I would have to work with? I knew that would mean a small cast, not many locations, and I just kept getting smaller and smaller with it until I was left with just a guy in box.

I’m guessing you’ve never found yourself buried alive, so how did you tap into Paul’s mindset to write the story?
That’s a pretty good guess! I just tried to envision what I would do if I was in that situation. Especially if I had the resources he had, which were a cell phone and a lighter. I just tried to play a game of what would I do, who would I call, and who would I reach out to.

I also tried to infuse a sense of realism. I knew that I certainly wouldn’t have all the answers, and when I created Paul’s character, I wanted to make him a very real human being. How would a person in that situation deal? They wouldn’t have all the answers and make all the right decisions. So that was the gist of it.

Can you talk about your writing process, how you conceptualize and then develop a script?
I first come up with an idea that seems interesting to me, that may or may not work. I then write a two- to three-page synopsis to see if the idea looks interesting on paper and makes sense. If it’s good, I try to flesh it out a little further. I’ll outline each scene in the movie. I usually create a character breakdown as well, creating their history, even if it doesn’t play out in the movie per se. Then I just sit down and write my first draft.

You originally planned to direct Buried, but then the project grew, the budget got bigger, and a director was brought in. Did you ever think it would develop this way?
I always knew there was something unique about the project. There have been a lot of single location movies, but nothing ever this small and contained. I thought it was going to be a small, indie film, which it ended up being anyway, but I thought it would be even smaller. I just hoped it would continue to push my career forward.

How much research did you have to do for the film?
For Buried, I did do quite a bit of research about what happens when civilians are taken hostage in Iraq. Luckily, no one has ever been buried alive, but they are taken and kept in really awful conditions, sometimes for a year, for instance. It’s a very real problem.

I ended up contacting a lot of contractors who were back from Iraq and Afghanistan. These guys were truck drivers, and while none of them had actually been taken hostage, some of them knew people that had. These contractors are getting a raw deal. The most common thing they are told is that things aren’t really dangerous out there, but they are very dangerous. They were told they would have protective gear and armor-plated trucks, but a lot of these guys end up being injured. They come back to America, and their insurance companies end up rejecting their claims. There’s a lot of shadiness going on within these corporations, so I tried to shed light on this situation with Buried.

Can you talk about your recently completed screenplay for M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming film Reincarnate?
I finished it a few months ago. It’s supposed to start shooting soon. Daniel Stamm, who directed The Last Exorcism, is the director on that. Shyamalan is doing a three-film series, the first being Devil, that make up the “Night Chronicles.” They’re not related, not a trilogy, but they are three films falling under a banner that he is producing, based on his original ideas. He handpicks who he wants to write and direct them.

How did you get the assignment?
Shyamalan had read Buried and saw the movie, and was a big fan of mine after that. I was on a short list of people for this job. He brought me to his compound outside of Philadelphia, and we sat down and had lunch and talked. I read the story for Reincarnate, and had ideas on how to flesh it out. He seemed to like my ideas, and that was that. I left with the job.

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
Read screenplays. Get your hands on as many as you can, read one a day, and in a year you will be ready to write a screenplay. It’s the best education you can get, and it’s free. If you have the opportunity to go to school and take screenwriting classes, do that. It took me a long time to catch a real break. I didn’t have access to the business side of writing, and unfortunately, that’s 70 percent of it, if not 80 or 90 percent. For years I tried to get people to read my screenplays. I had to push like hell to have that happen. After Buried, my stuff now gets sent around and people read it. I don’t say that arrogantly, but that’s the weird thing about how things work. I’m the same guy, but now all of a sudden people are chomping at the bit to see what I write next. I’m no better or worse a writer than a few years ago. So aspiring screenwriters have to learn that it is a business and treat it as you would any other business.

What’s next?
ATM is being edited right now and will hopefully be out in 2011. It’s about three coworkers who end up having the worst night of their lives. It’s another contained thriller. They stop at an ATM vestibule to get money, and there is a person outside waiting for them who absolutely terrorizes them. I don’t know why I keep writing this dark, scary stuff. I’m actually a pretty happy guy.

Chris Sparling will speak about Buried and his upcoming projects tonight, February 8, at 7 p.m. in COM Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of BU Cinematheque, is free and open to the public.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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